In the Studio with J D Rooney

Words by

Brooke Wilson

In the Studio with J D Rooney

Your practice takes form through various mediums with almost all of your works involving an alteration of space, via installation. Where does the process of building an installation start for you? How does the studio or gallery space inform the way in which the work is made?

For this residency presentation, I had quite a few different sketches I was doing ahead of starting in the space. It's one of the reasons why I wanted to come to this space beforehand, to think about, how the space felt, how the lighting filled it and how various structural elements could be used in creating hanging installations. So, I did have a few sketches beforehand and there was a point where I thought this is exactly what it’s going to look like. But then I got here, and after started testing out a few ideas, I realised some of the work didn't quite fit or come together as I imagined. So, thinking about maybe how painters work – say they’re planning a painting on a specific canvas, but they haven’t yet moved into their studio – by the time they arrive in this space the work they planned may feel totally different, or even redundant. It’s kind of like considering the spatial curation of space while producing the work. And with this, during the residency, I’ve been learning a lot about my practice and its relationship to space. I think, like painters, my installations begin by seeing the studio or gallery as a canvas. The way that I arrange materials, adding and subtracting features, is a bit like a painter considering the pigments and brush strokes within their work. I feel that this affects our overall experience of being with the work.

J D Rooney, ‘formed in water’ installation, 2023 © The artist courtesy of Cob Gallery

Your practice is underpinned by extensive research into Black radical spaces and various theoretical texts. One area you have been thinking about is the depths of the Black Atlantic -  the subject of Paul Gilroy’s ‘The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness’ published in 1993. Could you expand on your research into this subject? And any other references that have been important in the development of your current body of work?

Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic has played a significant role in the formation of my current work, and it’s also brought peace to my own life while questioning my position as a dual-heritage person of colour. We know that, within this ocean, histories of extraction and transportation occurred – but through Gilroy’s eyes, we’re able to consider how these histories have rippled into the present, and how the movement of Black bodies and ideas have drastically influenced the countries that surround this ocean. And although there’s a sharing within this Black Atlantic space, Gilroy also talks about how there isn’t one essentialising core aspect of Black identity – which, in itself, has been helpful while thinking of the borders I sit on as a mixed-race person of colour. There have also been references that have created additional threads while thinking about Blackness, space, and belonging. I think about the beautifully crafted words of Lola Olufemi in ‘Experiments in Imagining Otherwise’ – and how this book inspires us to use thought and imaginative practice to escape to a place within ourselves.

During your time in residence on the Cob award, you visited the Tilbury Docks in Essex, which is where the first Windrush arrivals entered the UK in 1948. Can you explain the relevance of this historical moment to you? And the way it is explored within your work?

I was interested in the Tilbury Docks as a site of both entry and exit. It was the site where teenagers and young adults who departed the Caribbean islands to travel across 4,000 miles of ocean took their first steps into Britain. It was both a beginning and an end – of a life back home and the starting of a new one here. Universally we recognise the significance of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 – but for me, I see Tilbury Dock in a similar way. Without the bravery of these first arrivals – and more broadly of this heroic generation – Britain would feel like a totally different place. It was only after reading up on the history of sound systems that I began to consider the Windrush generation's impact on the formation of this music and culture in Britain. And with Tilbury, it was, and is, the site where the Black Atlantic physically meets the shores of Britain. Where we can find the ripples of culture and history that extend beyond the horizon, to a world elsewhere.

J D Rooney, Water, 2023, Akai 4000 DB, 1_4 inch reel-to-reel tape, take up reel, speaker, sound, duration, infinite loop. Dimensions Variable. © The artist courtesy of Cob Gallery

This idea of entry and exit is a theme that recurs within your practice; from the entry and exit of the passengers on the Windrush to the collection of keys that form ‘In the warmth of your arms I’. This can be linked to ideas of belonging or the temporality of moving through space, or a passageway. What are your thoughts on this? Is this something you are consciously exploring?

It is something that I have been consciously exploring. If I’m honest, it’s something that stands out within my own life as much as it does within my practice. I like finding objects – often ones that I’ve collected over time – which allow me to transport back to previous spaces. Thinking of this entry and exit, the space between them can often be filled with objects and materials that allow access to either side. As you mentioned, keys for instance are one of these tools that allow access to either entry or exit. It’s the last thing you hand over when you leave a home and the first thing you’re given when you arrive. I started using them within my practice last year, after having built a collection over some time. I have a few from homes I’ve previously lived in, and thanks to a few locksmiths, I also have a collection of defective keys from properties I’ve never lived in. While sifting through this collection, I think about whether, given the option, a person would want to visit a previous residence and test out the old key.

In your work, you engage with a mixture of found objects which you then compose into different arrangements. Objects are interesting in this context as they can often represent memories. How do you find working with these objects and the personal and collective narratives they evoke?

I remember receiving criticism about my use of objects and equipment that are considered both outdated and of a time that I didn’t live through. I jokingly responded by talking about 40,000-year-old cave paintings and whether contemporary painters would be criticised in the same way. Processes in art are often cumulative and carry this baton of knowledge and ideas from those who’ve come before us – it’s how we keep stories alive – but of course, we do need to be conscious and critical of how we do this. As a lot of my work has explored Black British life in the mid-late 20th Century, it’s been important to use objects that accurately represent life and experiences at this time. It’s also a means of understanding my own history and feeling more connected with the family who lived through this time. Like, I’ll often have conversations with my Mum where we visualise her own memories of life in London during this time. Even recently we spoke about her memory from the estate in Streatham - looking out the window and seeing a guy build a sound system out of old furniture. I kinda want to do this myself, and stand with her and say “Is this how the world looked through your eyes?”. One final thing - I’m still figuring out how I feel about the use of culturally specific objects in spaces where cultures aren’t always represented. For example, I use dominoes in my work – a game that’s often played by older West-Indian men - and I think about whether these same people would feel welcomed in art spaces, and if they didn’t, what it would then mean to use dominoes in the same space.

J D Rooney, In the warmth of your arms (I,II,III), 2023, mixed medium, aluminium screen print on stained hardwood ply. 119 x 78 cm © The artist courtesy of Cob Gallery

In previous work, you have collaborated with photographers and worked with various found images. However, in this new series of work, you have taken your own photographs. What role would you say photography has within your practice?

There is something about photography being able to record stories and keep something alive. I think that also connects with the found objects. There's a way with photography - and I guess objects that are handed down to us - that allows stories and memories to continue. It's possible in other ways, but I find photography a useful tool in capturing this narrative.

In the same way, images hold memories, space holds sound. In your work, these two elements are often combined. When did you first begin to experiment with sound? What is it about the materiality of the sound systems and cassette tapes that is of sculptural interest?

I wouldn’t consider myself a sound artist, but it has of course been a significant material and point of research within my practice. I started thinking about cassettes a while back, after finding one that had tape spilling out of it. I started thinking about the potential of this material within installations. Due to the great length of cassette tape, you could turn up to an install with something that could easily fit in your pocket, to then create a vast installation that could fill the room. This process was distilled during my residency with ACAVA in 2022. During this time my extracted cassette installations were informed by two areas of study that collided. My research into Guyanese offshore oil drilling theoretically overlapped with research into the Black Atlantis of Drexciya – a theoretical underwater world imagined by the techno duo of the same name. Using cassettes at this time held multiple meanings – both the extraction of oil and Black/Brown bodies, and the historic disruption of indigenous space. Tape also operates as Brown skin, which, like my own, carries its own history, and captures records throughout time. As I’ve recently been looking into reggae sound systems, my work during the residency included Reel-to-Reels – equipment that was more specific to the generation and era I was exploring. With these tools, I was able to find new paths within my installations by creating tape loops – a continuous, infinite, feed of looping sound. This continuous beat is forever in motion – placeless almost – and never quite finds an island for the ship to land on.

You mentioned this idea of an unending beat and how it can become a portal for escape or a suspension of time, specifically, in reference to the sound of low-end dub. What potential do you think sound has in allowing us to connect to one another? Or alternatively, to lose ourselves within?

While I’m sitting with this thought I’m wondering where we’d say that sound sits. What I mean by that is – when I’m listening to music with headphones, I feel that the actual sound is located somewhere in my head, while also sitting around me in a space outside of myself. Listening in this way connects me with the presence of my own body, through this hum that sits on the surface of my skin. Listening to an old favourite tune, for me, feels like a hug from an ex, a lost love, or an old friend. I say this because, even on our own, the experience of listening to music provides the almost unique ability to transport ourselves to other locations, to memories, and to moments in our lives when we felt loved. When I think about this in comparison to collective listening at clubs and gigs, I first think about the sound sitting in the place between our bodies. And, although there may be some idea of connection through the proximity of bodies – I’ve also found moments of isolation at crowded clubs while being the only person not enjoying the music. But, in collective moments when I am enjoying the sound, the connection to people often comes from synchronised movement through dance. You feel like you’re all marching to the beat of the same drum, but, able to break away from that beat and guide each other into new directions. And you end up feeling kind of safe in this way, lost and then discovering a new family with strangers.I feel that as people we can often feel isolated, stranded even, on our own individual islands. But through shared loves of music, we’re offered this ability to look out across the sea to find other islands with people waving back. And although we may be disconnected as physical bodies in this space, the water that laps against each of our shores will forever be the bond that holds us.

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